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The Spectre of Communism

Wed 10th Oct 2012

The eulogies in the media for the late Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, while praising his historical insight, express bemusement at his adherence to the Communist cause to the end of his life. Why is there this lack of understanding as to why so many of his generation remained loyal to the cause of their youth?

Reams have been written and countless words uttered about the naivety, the delusions, stupidity and even criminality of those - communists and sympathisers - who gave their support to the Soviet Union over many years. Historians have delivered enough evidence to demonstrate that the Soviet Union (and, to a lesser or equal extent, its East European allies) under Stalin was a place of arbitrary and widespread criminality on the part of the state and the leadership of the institutionalised communist party. So, quod erat demonstrandum, anyone supporting the Soviet Union or communism must also have been criminal in some way or other. I wish to question this apparent logic and to try and place the relationship between Soviet reality and the widespread support it once enjoyed in a proper historical context and to argue that a more differentiated interpretation needs to be given credence.

When the Soviet Union was born, from the ashes of the First World War, it sent shuddering shock waves through the world’s ruling classes, but at the same time it imbued working people and the oppressed with new hope that a different form of society was possible and that those once oppressed could take power and govern in their own interests. It is impossible to exaggerate the earth-shattering impact the birth of the Soviet Union had on world politics and social relations. For the first time since the French Revolution ordinary people had thrown off the yoke of their oppressors and taken power. Certainly in those early years, at least until after the death of Lenin, and despite some unsavoury incidents and isolated acts of criminality that always accompany war, the general attitudes of those who didn’t feel immediately threatened by communism was one of approval and support. A tyrannical Tsarist empire had been overthrown. But even up to the end of the Second World War support was still widespread, despite Stalin’s show trials in the thirties and his decimation of the old Bolshevik leadership. It was only with the repression of the Hungarian uprising and the intervention in Czechoslovakia that support fell away sharply.

The Soviet Union became the first ‘workers’ state’, the first country governed by its own working people. It is almost impossible today to imagine the euphoria, the inspiration, hope and sense of historical fulfilment that this event engendered in so many people. It inspired not only manual workers and agricultural labourers; the existence of the Soviet Union inspired scientists, artists, writers and musicians around the world. The list of these is infinite, from people like Picasso, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Miller, Diego Rivera, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte to Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, John Reed, Albert Einstein and Marie and Joliet Curie. All were thrilled about this attempt to remodel a class-ridden society, to do away with hierarchies of all sorts and to provide everyone with equal opportunities.

One of the big factors in explaining widespread support for the Soviet Union both internally and externally – something not often discussed – is the role played by the Jewish diaspora. Anti-Semitism of the worst sort was endemic throughout Tsarist Russia. The new Soviet government under Lenin promised equality for all races and oppressed minorities within the old Tsarist empire. For Jews this opened up the prospect of genuine freedom for the first time in history. Also, those tens of thousands of Jews who had fled the pogroms and settled in the USA, Britain and other countries, identified readily with the young Soviet state.

For the capitalist countries, the young Soviet state represented a dire threat to the system of profit-making. Already before the guns fell silent at the end of Second World War, they were retrained on the Soviet Union and a vicious Cold War unfolded. The battle wasn’t against Stalinism or a desire for ‘democracy’ in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but was an attempt to extirpate the very idea of an alternative society, to prevent further ‘infection’ of the capitalist dominated western world.

It is widely forgotten today that immediately following the successful Bolshevik revolution the west, in the form of British, French and US forces, together with the Italian special Corpo di Spedizione, as well as contingents from Romania, Greece, Poland, China and Serbia, invaded the Soviet Union to support the White Russians in an attempt to strangle the new socialist state. The Japanese also, concerned about their northern border, sent the largest military force from the east, numbering about 70,000.

Even the notorious and oft cited Nazi-Soviet Pact, concluded shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, was only signed by Stalin after the British and French had dragged their feet over the signing of a friendship agreement with the Soviet Union to halt nazism in its tracks. Western consensus, especially with increasing historical distance from the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War, is that Hitler’s tyranny and Stalin’s are two sides of the same coin – the two most evil totalitarian dictatorships of the 20thcentury. While in no way wishing to diminish or dismiss the horrors and mass killings that took place during Stalin’s rule, such an attempt to draw comparisons between the two needs to be forcefully rebutted. Nazism was based on a racist, anti-humanitarian and aggressive ideology and involved the genocide of Jews, whereas communism is based on the polar opposite – humanitarian justice, an end to exploitation and oppression and the pursuit of peace. The fact that Stalin, who usurped collective leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, was a criminal dictator and made a mockery of those aims does not make the two equivalent in any way.

The long and dangerous Cold War period that stretched from 1945 until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989 was based on a myth of a Soviet threat. Despite Stalin’s dictatorial rule and the Soviet Union’s possession of nuclear weaponry, there is no real evidence that the Soviet Union ever envisaged a pre-emptive attack on the West or that it had had imperial ambitions beyond its East European sphere of influence. Its whole political strategy was based on defence, and in view of the many demands made by leading Western figures for the elimination of Soviet communism, it is little wonder that the Soviet Union adopted an almost paranoiac fear of a pre-emptive strike by the West. Recently revealed CIA papers have demonstrated how Soviet defence capabilities were exaggerated by the West throughout the Cold War period in order to maintain this myth.

On the other side, the US engendered paranoia of communist subversion led to draconian internal policies to exterminate not only national communist parties, but any organisation or individual even loosely associated with communism, Marxism, the peace movement or friendship with the Soviet Union. Despite the thousands of lives ruined by McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, the torture and killing carried out by Britain in its imperial colonies have all been eclipsed, in the writing of history, by the Soviet Union as ‘the real crucible of horror and oppression’. By pointing this out, I am not attempting to belittle Stalin’s crimes – and it must not be forgotten that many genuine communists and sympathisers were victims of his tyranny, not just those who opposed the transformation of Soviet Russia – but to put them in the context of the battle for world domination and capitalism’s desperation to repel the tide of change and rising demand worldwide for social justice.

It also needs to be remembered that it was the Soviet Union, not the US, Britain or any other western power that gave selfless support to liberation movements throughout the world during its existence, to the ANC in South Africa, the MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique and the FMLN in Vietnam and many others; the west, on the contrary, did all in its power to suppress these movements. Only recently are the atrocities committed by Britain in its former colonies, putting down liberation struggles, being given an airing in the mainstream media in the wake of demands for compensation by some of its victims.

As the many recent academic papers and books reveal, communism, as an idea and goal, is being given a new lease of life.

Particularly in face of the deep crisis of capitalism and its clear inability to solve any of the major problems facing humanity, the search for an alternative way of organising society will continue. This is why all on the left need to properly evaluate the historical experience of attempts to build communist societies and to separate the distortions and crimes of Stalin and his henchmen from the heroic and admirable deeds of communists worldwide and the deeper communist experience over and beyond that narrow perspective of conflating communism and Stalinism. Only then will a full appreciation and understanding of the lives and loyalties of individuals like Eric Hobsbawm make sense.

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